Hart Crane: Excerpts from Letters

to Waldo Frank

April 21, 1924

[Crane has just begun his all too-brief relationship with Emil Opffer; Frank was a straight male, an influential cultural critic on the New York scene, who functioned as a father-confessor for Crane]

For many days, now, I have gone about quite dumb with something for which "happiness" must be too mild a term. At any rate, my aptitude for communication, such as it is!, has been limited to one person alone, and perhaps for the first time in my life (and, I can only think that it is for the last, so far is my imagination from the conception of anything more profound and lovely than this love). I have wanted to write you more than once, but it will take many letters to let you know what I mean (for myself, at least) when I say that I have seen the Word made Flesh. I mean nothing less, and I know now that there is such a thing as indestructibility. In the deepest sense, where flesh became transformed through intensity of response to counter-response, where sex was beaten out, where a purity of joy was reached that included tears. It’s true, Waldo, that so much more than my frustrations and multitude of humiliations has been answered in this reality and promise that I feel that whatever event the future holds in justified beforehand. And I have been able to give freedom and life which was acknowledged in the ecstasy of walking hand in hand across the most beautiful bridge of the world, the cables enclosing us and pulling us upward in such a dance as I have never walked and never can walk with another.

Note the above address [110 Columbia Heights, Brooklyn], and you will see that I am living in the shadow of that bridge. It is so quiet here; in fact, it’s like the moment of the communion with the "religious gunman" in my ["For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen"] where the edge of the bridge leaps over the edge of the street. It was in the evening darkness of its shadow that I started the last part of that poem. Imagine my surprise when Emil brought me to this street where, at the very end of it, I saw a scene that was more familiar than a hundred factual previsions could have rendered it! And there is all the glorious dance of the river directly beyond the back window of the room I am to have as soon as Emil’s father moves out, which is to be soon. Emil will be back then from S. America where he had to ship for wages as a ship’s writer. That window is where I would be most remembered of all: the ships, the harbor, and the skyline of Manhattan, midnight, morning, or evening – rain, snow, or sun, it is everything from mountains to the walls of Jerusalem and Nineveh, and all related in actual contact with the changelessness of the many waters that surround it. I think the sea has thrown itself upon me and been answered, at least in part, and I believe I am a little changed – not essentially, but changed and transubstantiated as anyone is who has asked a question and been answered.

… I shall never, of course, be able to give any account of it to anyone in direct terms, but you will be here and not so far from now. Then we shall take a walk across the bridge to Brooklyn (as well as to Estador, for all that!). Just now I feel the flood tide again the way it seemed to me just before I left Cleveland last year, and I feel like slapping you on the back every half hour.

From O My Land, My Friends: The Selected Letters of Hart Crane, ed. Langdon Hammer and Brom Weber (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1997), 186-188.

to Waldo Frank

20 June 1926

(from the Isle of Pines, Cuba)

[This was written just before Crane began work on The Bridge; these are the objections that he must actively counter if he is to begin his poem]

The form of my poem rises out of a past that so overwhelms the present with its worth and vision that I’m at a loss to explain my delusion that there exist any real links between that past and a future worthy of it. The "destiny" is long since completed, perhaps the little last section of my poem [i. e., various drafts of what would become "Atlantis"] is a hangover echo of it – but it hangs suspended somewhere in the ether like an Absalom by his hair [rebellious Absalom was killed by loyalist Joab when his hair became entangled in a tree]. The bridge as a symbol today has no significance beyond an economical approach to shorter hours, quicker lunches, behaviorism and toothpicks. And inasmuch as the bridge is a symbol of all such poetry as I am interested in writing it is my present fancy that a year from now I’ll be more contented working in an office than ever before. Rimbaud was the last great poet that our civilization will see – he let off all the great cannon crackers in Valhalla’s parapets, the sun has set theatrically several times since while [Jules] Laforgue, Eliot and others of that kidney have whimpered fastidiously. Everybody writes poetry now – and "poets" for the first time are about to receive official social and economic recognition in America. It’s really all the fashion, but a dead bore to anticipate. If only America were half as worthy today to be spoken of as Whitman spoke of it fifty years ago there might be something for one to say – not that Whitman received or required any tangible proof of his intimations, but that time has shown how increasingly lonely and ineffectual his confidence stands.

From O My Land, My Friends: The Selected Letters of Hart Crane, ed. Langdon Hammer and Brom Weber (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1997), 259.

to Marianne Moore

August 12, 1926

from Isle of Pines, Cuba

["Proem" was the first of his new work on The Bridge; he sent a copy to Frank on July 26 and to Moore, editor of The Dial, shortly thereafter]

I am very pleased to receive your acceptance of the poem, "To Brooklyn Bridge" for publication in

As I have a suggestion to make in regard to the alteration of one line of this poem (or rather a substitution), I’m writing you at once. "Towers blot the drowning west in spooring steam," the third line of the sixth stanza, has bothered me. I am wondering if you would care to consider substituting the following for this line:

"All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks burn."

This seems superior to the other line as far as my personal intentions in the poem matter. …

From O My Land, My Friends: The Selected Letters of Hart Crane, ed. Langdon Hammer and Brom Weber (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1997), 269.

[The line as finally printed further substitutes "turn" for "burn." The original line, with its "blot" and "steam," carried forward negative metaphors of liquid and heat from lines one and two in the sixth stanza; originally, then, the bridge would have appeared abruptly as an alternate and a savior in the fourth line. The bridge’s appearance is considerably eased, even as its drama is increased, in this new version. The rewritten line, with its "cloud-flown derricks," operates as a mediator between the narrow canyons and the intense heat of Wall Street: the prosperity of new construction seems, from the beginning of the stanza, a further example of a mercenary culture bent on harnessing even the sun’s light, but by the end of the stanza, those building-projects are newly associated with a confident energy that reaches skyward.]

to Yvor Winters

4 June 1930

[Crane knew Winters as a young experimental poet and reviewer of poetry, to whom he sent portions of The Bridge in 1927; Winters’s negative review of The Bridge in Poetry (see below) opened with the statement that "the book cannot be called an epic, in spite of its endeavor to create and embody a national myth, because it has no narrative framework and so lacks the formal unity of an epic"]

I don’t wish to quarrel with all of your judgments; I feel that some of them are illuminating. Nor should our philosophical differences be resurrected again except that you ascribe, again and again, quite different objectives on my part than anything said in the text could reasonably warrant. … People can’t be said to "fail" in matters they never thought of undertaking, though such re-iterations as yours may prove impressive enough to strangers.

Your primary presumption that The Bridge was proffered as an epic has no substantial foundation. You know quite well that I doubt that our present stage of cultural development is so ordered yet as to provide the means or method for such an organic manifestation as that. Since your analysis found no evidence of epic form, no attempt even to simulate the traditional qualifications or pedantic trappings, – then I wonder what basis you had for attributing such an aim to the work, – unless, perhaps, to submit me to an indignity which might be embarrassing on the grounds that I could be stripped of unjustified pretensions.

The fact that The Bridge contains folk lore and other material suitable to the epic form need not therefore prove its failure as a long lyric poem, with interrelated sections. Rome was written about long before the age of Augustus, and I dare say that Virgil was assisted by several well travelled roads to guide him, though it is my posthumous suggestion that when we do have an "epic" it need necessarily incorporate a personalized "hero." …

My acknowledgment of Whitman as an influence and living force: "Not greatest, thou – not first, nor last – but near" [l. 200, "Cape Hatteras"], as I qualify it – apparently this discolored the entire poem in your estimation. Thereafter you can see little but red, and throw all logic to the winds. You can even commit the following example of pure non sequitur: "All three (Whitman, [Robinson] Jeffers, Crane) are occasionally betrayed by their talents into producing a passage better than their usual run, but this only goes to prove the fallacy of their initial assumptions [Crane’s italics]." This proves actually nothing whatsoever, unless it be your assumption that a horse cannot run without breaking out of harness. You might as well say that maples turn red in autumn. But that only goes to prove the uselessness of rain.

[Winters retained all of his 1926-1930 correspondence with Crane, with the single exception of this letter, which was the last to pass between them and which was the only one he destroyed; however, Crane furnished Allen Tate with a carbon copy from which this excerpt is reprinted.]

From O My Land, My Friends: The Selected Letters of Hart Crane, ed. Langdon Hammer and Brom Weber (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1997), 428-430.

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